The very nature of abstract art might lead us to suppose that it stands at an even further remove from Impressionism than Cubism did. The fact is, however, that by reacting against cubist rationalism and reverting to the basic forms and forces that appeal to the human instinct, abstract art has contributed to focus the attention of the younger generation of painters on the master of Giverny.
The first wave of abstractionism unleashed by Cubism was based, it is true, on a rational, intellectualized system of symbols. But it was followed by a purer form of abstraction embodying a very different conception of art. The latter, based not on the reasoning mind but on the senses, set out to give plastic expression to the blind, instinctive forces and uncontrollable pulsions that lie beneath the surface of consciousness. Since this is the prevailing trend of art today, it is only natural that the younger generation of painters should be more susceptible than their elders to a purely sensorial art; only natural, therefore, that they should see Monet’s last works in a new light.
To them the great Water Lilies recently withdrawn from the seclusion of the studio at Giverny have come as a revelation. In these canvases, executed when Monet’s eyes were clouded by cataract, they have found, as it were, the sponsorship of their own experiments in “abstract expressionism.” But the question arises: may not this apparent sponsorship be simply fortuitous, inasmuch as the works on which it is based were the result, involuntary perhaps, of failing eyesight? To this there is only one reply: after the operation which partially restored his sight, Monet preserved the canvases in question instead of destroying them, and it was his lifelong habit to destroy every canvas that failed to satisfy him.
Furthermore, the keen interest he took in these experiments in near-abstraction, in which the very shape of objects melts away in modulations of colors, is confirmed by his deliberate resumption of them after his recovery. It is easy to identify the canvases executed before his operation, when the cataract had spread an amber-colored film over the crystalline lens of his eyes: these canvases are not only woolly in outline but abnormally yellow in tone. Those painted after the operation, on the contrary, have an almost acid freshness of tone. Now some of the latter group, some of the most characteristic among them in fact (whose documented dating, moreover, is unimpugnable), nevertheless retain a haziness of outline which renders the subjects unrecognizable. These works can only be regarded as experiments in abstraction deliberately undertaken.
Among these irrefutable examples of deliberate abstraction is a Garden in Bloom, in green and acid pink, whose subject is only recognizable by reference to a second version, painted by Monet at the same time, from the same spot, but with normal eyesight. The composition, angle of vision, lighting and color scheme of the two pictures are identical. The only difference is the handling, the focus, if you will: clean-cut in one, blurred in the other. Without reference to the first, which corresponds to it in every particular, save handling, the second fails to convey any figurative impression at all; it is, purely and simply, a magnificent symphony of colors.